Saturday, 26 August 2017

Lawson’s Today interview shows that healthy public debate on climate demands basic intellectual standards

The other week a row erupted when Nigel Lawson, Chair of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, was invited onto Radio 4’s Today to comment on Al Gore’s latest film on climate change, An Inconvenient Sequel. During this interview Lord Lawson claimed that average global temperatures have declined over the past ten years. This was, as Lawson said of Gore’s film, ‘claptrap’. Instant rebuttals, as well as questions regarding the BBC’s need to provide balance on the topic, followed swiftly.

I’ve spent my career researching energy and climate public policy questions. I’ve hung around right-of-centre think tanks and met a lot of climate sceptics. I fully appreciate they have a right to free speech. I’ve also worked in atmospheric physics research labs and met a lot of climate scientists. I sympathise with their acute frustration when they see their research misrepresented by people who may or may not have even a basic understanding of the physical processes at work in the atmosphere.

Many in civil society are extremely concerned about climate change and see a mountain to climb in terms of public understanding. Of course we get angry when we hear the ‘view’ (or demonstrable falsehood) that temperatures aren’t rising when NASA data shows they clearly are. This isn’t a sixth form debate. We’re talking about whether governments should act to avoid potentially epic human suffering and chronic geopolitical instability. Interlocutors in this debate should strive for intellectual standards which are equal to its enormity.
Change in global surface temperature relative to 1951-1980 average

Free speech is not just an abstract right but a thing of practical utility; we need it to get public policy right, climate policy included. But this societal role of free speech only functions well when it goes hand in hand with personal responsibility and humility about what one actually knows. There is a clear duty on those who seek serious influence to make arguments that are well-founded and expressed without malice. This is a sine qua non for civilised public debate.

The USA, where climate scepticism has morphed well beyond reasonable challenge to something far more dystopian, shows what happens when civilised debate breaks down. Some government employees fear they can no longer speak candidly or use the term ‘climate change’. Others have hurried to make samizdat back-ups of precious data. The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s Republican Chair Lamar Smith introduced ‘carbon enrichment’ as newspeak for climate change. No surprise then that a proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt of a formal mechanism for challenging climate science has been met with bitter animosity. While not necessarily a bad idea in principle, given previous form, only a mug or a partisan could believe the Trump administration capable of running it with diligent impartiality.

We should avoid our public life becoming that toxic. I defend the right of private media to air vociferous and/or scientifically uninformed sceptic arguments, even if I don’t like it. I don’t have to pay for them. As a public service broadcaster with a mission to educate and inform, different expectations apply to the BBC. It needs to uphold free speech, but in seeking ‘balance’ it can make a judgement on what value airing a controversial viewpoint can add to a debate: for example, does it pose a specific and novel challenge to received opinion? We expect to see bumptious dilettantes unfettered by quality control on the internet but not on Radio 4. There is simply no defence for someone with the privilege of airtime on the BBC getting basic facts wrong on a matter of this magnitude and importance.

Ultimately, people will know from experience when heat, drought or wildfires are outside the norm, as they seem to have been this summer. While scientists fret conscientiously about attribution, the public may well draw their own conclusions. In the not too distant future, default public attitudes towards political leadership could easily flip from ‘don’t tell me what car to drive’ to ‘why the hell didn’t you do more to stop this?’. If loss of life, livelihood, and property unfold as many expect, ideological climate sceptics risk making themselves some of the most unpopular people in history. Of course they may have died of old age or barricaded themselves in New Zealand by then, but if I were one, I’d want to get my ducks in a row. Taking responsibility for the quality of what you say when enjoying your right to free speech is a good place to start.

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